John Madden interview: The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel director talks about the unexpected success of the first film, and the pros and cons of filming in India

Returning to direct the sequel to his surprise hit The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is Mr John Madden. And as the film arrives in UK cinemas, he spared us some time for a natter about it…

Did you have any reservations about doing a second film?

We did initially, I think it was just the English response – by which I’m sending myself up a little – where we thought, ‘really? Is that a bit cynical?’ Because there was the sense that the first film was such a surprise to all of us, and to everybody with how wide of an audience it found, and it did seem like a crass commercial move to make another one.

But very quickly, once you examine the circumstances – a) we all had a fantastic time making it, and b) the first film, without getting into semantics, was a sort of beginning rather than an ending because they had made a quite brave choice about their lives, as their lives ahead of them shortened, to go to this place and start again somehow.

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At the end of the first movie they are of course starting again, deciding to stay. And so, actually the door was wide open for a continuation of that story, and I think that’s what made the difference on me particularly, the writer and I and Graham [Broadbent] the producer.

The second thing was, ‘can we come up with a story that we think is worth telling and the actors won’t feel embarrassed about, feeling they have to say yes to?’ That very quickly fell away because we found we had a lot of things to say about them still, and a structure that suggested itself naturally because a wedding was promised at the end of the last film.

Lastly, though it’s a privilege to be able to go back into that world and write for those people now, alongside an audience that already has a relationship with them. You worry about whether you’re going to disappoint and somehow let the first film down by making one that’s not as good – as in the ‘quit while you’re ahead’ analogy – but it was up to us to bet on ourselves rather than betting against ourselves, and we just moved steadily along that path.

When we’d finished the script I thought, this is a really strong film. It remains to be seen whether others agree with that, but we felt happy that we’d done it.

In terms of the success of the first film, has your experience differed depending on where you are?

It was pretty much everywhere that it happened. Two things were odd – one was that it seemed to work regardless of borders. I’m sure there are exceptions to that but I’m not so aware of them. It just worked incredibly well and, while you might have expected that in Australia, New Zealand and the UK, the combined grosses in those countries were bigger than the American domestic gross, which is very unusual, but also in Europe, the far east, Japan and all sorts of territories.

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But it also expanded beyond its target demographic – people the same age as the central characters in the piece. It’s really nice when that happens and a film takes off, particularly if it’s got very small beginnings, and there are plenty of things that one can point to as to why that’s the case, but I don’t think there’s any one thing that made it happen. It’s just sometimes movies work and catch fire, and just settle down into an identity that connects with an audience, and sometimes they almost do but don’t quite.

What were you looking forward to exploring in this one that you may not have had a chance to last time?

Well I suppose landing a lot of ideas that were implicit in the last one because, if a film’s good in the sense that it’s sound, its underpinnings are sound and its narrative has some implications that you haven’t necessarily realised fully until you start putting it together, you have a chance to go back and really figure that out.

The first film clearly had a large cast of characters to establish, and then it was primarily concerned with observing and witnessing the effects of this massive cultural collision that they all went through. That’s its primary purpose and we’re getting to know them but, in the second film you have a chance to ask what happened as a result of that, and it’s a very interesting premise.

The chance to see where that leads [the audience], and to go a little deeper into that as well as hopefully still making people laugh – because it is still a comedy – that was very appealing. And also, because there’s an underlying contradiction in the film that it’s about second chances and ‘it’s never too late’, but Sonny’s famous formula in the first film – “everything will be alright in the end, and if it’s not alright then it’s not yet the end” – becomes something different in this one.

I suppose it’s “there’s no present like the time”, meaning that things don’t go on forever, and what life actually is and what its possibilities are have to be seized. The contradiction is that, as Judi Dench’s character says, “how many new lives can we have?” and the answer is “as many as we like, while we can.” But the answer, crucially, is not “as many as we like,” but “as many as we like, while we can.”

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And the “while we can” hovers over the film, because I think any decent comedy has to come out of an acceptance of a reality, and jokes are a way of saying things in an acceptable way that would become unacceptable if they were said straight. So Sonny’s summation at the beginning of the film – “why die here when I can die there?” – is actually a perfectly accurate summary of the film, and both funny and true.

So that was gratifying, to have a chance to be able to explore that. We consider them as one story, it’s the second half of the story, so you examine the way each character starts in the first film, and observe where they are at the end of the second. That’s quite a story in all of their cases.

Do you think there could be a third film, with the implication that Sonny might buy the third hotel?

We didn’t think about making a second one while we were making the first – nothing could have been further from anybody’s mind – and I would have to say that, similarly, there was no thought of making a third one while we were making the second. Partly for reasons I’ve just stated and partly because, while there’ll be a story to tell, whether it’s what an audience will want to see is another matter.

With this, it has the feeling and the mood, and it perhaps generates similar emotions to the first film. It’s a film that makes you happy, after all it ends with a wedding that, while it hasn’t been easy getting there, affords a kind of resolution to the degree of many of the lives involved in it.

That’s a hard thing to top, just narratively, not least because Indian weddings are so powerful and so infectious and so intoxicating. So if I were a writer, which I am partly, I would say whether you would turn left from there or right, and so no, we haven’t thought of that, and all I can say is that I felt very lucky to be presiding over a cast that came out intact at the other end of this one. Because people are fragile – Judi and Maggie are both in their eighties now – and I was asking them to do a lot of very tough things.

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How was it reassembling the cast?

There was difficultly scheduling but not reassembling because, before we even embarked on thinking about story or writing the script, we obviously needed to check in with all of the actors. Because there’s no point in writing the story and then finding that one of them has absolutely no intention of coming back.

So we had to ask if they were open to it, and they were all open to it, and I made a pact with them saying, ‘well you need to wait and see what script we’re offering you, and you can defer your decision until then, but we want to know we’re not wasting our time.’ In fact, they all jumped in immediately at that point.

That’s a reflection of the fact that they enjoyed making the first film a lot, which has a massive amount to do with India, which is a pretty life-changing experience anyway.

So that’s an infectious thing that I think people were happy to revisit, very happy to go back to India, but happy to go further with those characters. That was quite a nice thing for the actors to do, and an appealing thing because they’re not carrying the whole movie. It’s a very, very democratic piece in every way, and it’s telling a lot of stories. No one story overwhelms another, they’re all involved in each other’s stories, and that’s quite a rare thing for actors to do.

Was it a different experience going back the second time?

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It felt while we were there like we’d just finished shooting the last scene of the first film; the sense of continuity was pretty overwhelming. The sense of reunion was very, very strong because we were coming back with a crew and a cast we had not seen in the meantime – the British cast and the Indian cast.

We were shooting at a different time of the year, which presented its own difficulties because everybody assumes India has beautiful weather all of the time and we were shooting in winter which means the nights, for example, were incredibly cold in a way that people don’t anticipate.

This film has an enormous number of night scenes in – at least half the entire shoot was night shooting – and outside, which is very challenging for older people who feel the cold more. So there was that, and there were the routine difficulties of shooting in India, as getting control of anything at all is virtually impossible.

There seems to be a lot less resistance to this film being about older actors, playing older characters, about being older – have you noticed that?

I think that’s true, but you wouldn’t have expected to find a resistance amongst the group that is the same age as the characters in the movie. What was interesting was that there wasn’t a resistance from people younger than that, certainly in the UK. I think the figures were something like 40 to 45 per cent of the audience that went to see the movie were under 40.

That was a total surprise, and has to do with gaining a perspective on a stage of life into which all of those people will move themselves, but currently the experience is probably that of their parents, or aunts or people who are ahead of them on that curve. I think a lot of scales fell off a lot of people’s eyes about that.

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The movie lifts the lid on what goes on in the hearts and minds of older people. They’re behaving like teenagers most of the time, and that’s a secret that hadn’t quite been lifted to the surface, that perhaps the film did. So I think we have lessened the resistance, and also it’s a big part of the audience now.

John Madden, thank you very much. The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is out in UK cinemas on February 27th

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